A Kashmiri protester throws a stone toward police during a strike. Photo: Reuters / Files
A Kashmiri protester throws a stone toward police during a strike. Photo: Reuters / Files

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to New Delhi this week followed the recent appointment by the Indian government of a retired intelligence head to start talks with “various organizations and concerned individuals in Jammu and Kashmir” (J&K).

India has been battling civil unrest in J&K since 1990; the state is disputed between Pakistan and India. Tillerson has for the past week been advocating a “regional approach” to handling Afghanistan, where the US is fighting its longest war ever. This follows President Donald Trump’s unveiling, on August 21, of a new strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia that included a “larger” role for India.

Dineshwar Sharma, a former director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), India’s internal intelligence agency, was appointed on Monday as an interlocutor “to initiate and carry forward a dialogue with elected representatives” and others in J&K. The appointment was announced by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who visited Srinagar in Kashmir on September 9; Singh carefully chose his words about whom Sharma would meet: “elected representatives, political parties, other organizations and individuals”.

The exercise was kicked off by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech on August 15, in which he claimed Kashmir could be sorted out not with bullets (goli) or abuse (gaali) but with hugs (gale lagaane se).

Sharma’s selection was in all likelihood done by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. Earlier, Doval had also appointed Sharma as the IB chief over several others who were senior; Doval is also a former chief of the IB, and both officers have each done a Kashmir posting.

The exercise was kicked off by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech, in which he claimed Kashmir could be sorted out not with bullets or abuse but with hugs

“I welcome this appointment,” said A S Dulat, India’s former spy chief, who also ran the Kashmir policy under former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

“I have full faith in Sharma, and I am confident that he will be meeting the All Parties Hurriyat Conference,” Dulat added, referring to Kashmir’s separatists. (The Hurriyat moderates led by Srinagar’s chief priest, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, have reacted cautiously to Sharma’s appointment.)

Since Trump took over as president of the United States, Doval has been in regular touch with his American counterpart, General H R McMaster. The Indian national security adviser visited Afghanistan on October 16, where he met with President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and Doval’s counterpart Hanif Atmar.

After the hush-hush visit, a joint statement was issued welcoming “the opportunities created by the new US strategy for bringing peace and security in Afghanistan”.

The current administrations in Afghanistan, India and the US have all complained about Pakistan allegedly giving sanctuary to terrorists, and each has called on Pakistan to act against those supposed sanctuaries.

Kashmir was first linked to Afghanistan by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, as part of his Afghanistan-Pakistan policy. India pushed back on the linkage and eventually the Americans dropped reference to it, at least publicly.

In Pakistan, it is widely believed that each of Modi’s outreaches to Kashmir or to Pakistan – such as the impromptu visit last December 25 to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s house in Raiwind – are prompted by Washington. Thus whenever the US asks Pakistan to take action against terrorists, Islamabad in turn asks Washington to push India for movement on the Kashmir dispute.

Tillerson, who landed in Delhi on Tuesday evening and was scheduled to meet with Indian officials on Wednesday, last week spoke of a “100-year partnership” between the US and India, and said the two nations would “bookend” stability in the Indo-Pacific region. A key step forward would be lessening the United States’ commitment in Afghanistan, via a complicated Kabuki move involving Pakistan and India, for which both Trump and Tillerson see an enhanced role. Peace in Kashmir would presumably be a part of that.

Former Kashmiri separatist Firdous Syed did not express optimism about the appointment of Sharma. “The last interlocutors were a farce,” he said of the three-member team of academic Radha Kumar, bureaucrat M M Ansari and the late journalist Dileep Padgaonkar that was appointed by the previous New Delhi government in 2010.  It gave a report two years later that continues to gather dust in India’s Home Ministry.

“Appointing a former IB chief could be to your advantage provided you want to go somewhere,” he added.

As a former internal intelligence chief, Sharma has many advantages, but it remains to be seen if he can use them to navigate a complex situation.

If the initiative yields results, it will upset Modi’s hardline base without assuaging anyone else. Furthermore, it will be a dramatic U-turn just 18 months before the next general election.

As Syed says, if the government’s intentions are true, then it ought first to move in the Supreme Court, which is to hear a petition by a hardline right-wing group on the legality of Article 35A in India’s constitution, a provision unique to Jammu and Kashmir that allows the state to determine its terms of residency.

“The government can easily file a counter-affidavit against the J&K Study Group’s petition on Article 35A,” Syed said.

However, Dulat was confident that Sharma would not be “wasting anybody’s time” and would meet with the separatists. “If something is to happen, it’ll take three to four months,” he added.

Aditya Sinha is a writer and journalist based on the outskirts of Delhi. He tweets at @autumnshade.